Panic in Bloom

Bees are dying. So are moths. And every other kind of pollinator. No pollinators means no flowers, no fruit, no nuts. Is this the end of the world as we know it?


Part 2: It’s All Our Fault

We are killing the bees the way a big dog might knock over knick-knacks in a china shop, a few here, a few there, just by turning and roaming and looking up and generally being us.

The varroa mite didn’t help. Called Varroa destructor, it’s a nasty, microscopically small thing that sucks the blood of bees. It came here from Asia because of our human habit of moving hives hither and yon. Another parasite called Nosema ceranae didn’t help, either. The parasite itself isn’t a big deal, but scientists recently discovered that when honeybees eat a typical diet of generic American pollen contaminated with 21 agricultural chemicals, the parasite kills the bees.

The pesticides, they don’t help. Neonicotinoids, the newest class of pesticides, are “systemic,” which means they are absorbed by a plant, move through its tissues, and stay there forever, ending up in every bit of pollen and nectar produced over the plant’s whole life. When the bees take the pollen and nectar home and concentrate it, as they do in honey-making, they transform what was thought to be a dilute and safe pesticide into a concentrated and lethal one. Neonicotinoids are currently the most popular pesticide in the United States, and virtually all non-organic-certified corn planted in Minnesota is treated with a neonicotinoid.

The genetic modifications to corn—altering it so that it expresses the Bt toxin—aren't helping. Minnesota has one of the highest uses of Bt corn in the country—more than two-thirds of the corn in the southwest corner of the state is Bt.

Roundup Ready, or glyphosate-resistant, corn and soybeans don’t help either, not because of anything about the corn or soybeans, particularly, but because by their very definition the crops, currently thought to be 90-plus percent of American soybeans and more than 70 percent of American corn, are designed to be drenched with herbicides. These herbicides have eliminated the wildflowers honeybees need for food between commercial agriculture crop blooms. In 2011, the latest year data is available, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture reported more than 25 million pounds of glyphosate being poured on the ground to kill everything that wasn’t corn or soybeans, like wildflowers.

A few million dead bees here, a few hundred thousand there—pretty soon it all adds up, and you’re talking real bee death.

For bees, life is now a thing in which periodic all-you-can-eat buffets of low-dose poison are interleaved with stretches of starvation.

We also kill a few more by converting marginal lands to subsidized commodity crop production, especially corn, and guaranteeing that marginal land will earn the farmer the same price as prime farmland would. Minnesota is number four in the nation in collecting farm subsidies.

We kill a few more by buying cheap counterfeit Chinese honey at chain stores. In 2011, Food Safety News tested chain-store honey and found three-quarters of what’s out there and cheap is fake honey from China. Fake, cheap honey puts downward price pressure on North American beekeepers, leading them to do stupid things like take too much healthy honey out of their hives and try to feed the bees corn syrup or sugar water.

And we probably kill a few more building housing on former wild lands and spraying pesticides in our gardens and around our churches. And someone’s dog probably ate a few. A few million dead bees here, a few hundred thousand there—pretty soon it all adds up, and you’re talking real bee death.

But that’s not all. Honeybees, of course, are notable to many of us because they are responsible for maybe $15 billion a year in agricultural value and bring us apples, muskmelons, and pumpkins, locally, and honeybees are the bees from which we gather honey. But there are other bees, bumblebees, mason bees, digger bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, wild bees of every stripe—the bees that inhabited North America before Europeans brought honeybees here—and those wild bees are facing the same collapse that honeybees are, except that they have no lobbyists or magazine covers. Neither do the moths.

Part 3: But Who’s Counting?

How are our Minnesota moths doing? “We actually don’t know a lot about our moths,” says Susan J. Weller, a professor at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, a woman with large, friendly eyes and an exceptionally calm demeanor. “Estimates for all the insect species in the world range from 10 to 12 million—we don’t actually know. There are about 130,000 butterflies and moth species known today and probably another 20,000 out there yet to be discovered. We have undiscovered species in drawers right here,” she says, gesturing to the University of Minnesota’s insect collection, on the St. Paul campus, a few buildings away. “We identify species and sometimes find they’re extinct.”

If we had been watching and counting those moths, in drawers, now extinct, would we have diagnosed them with colony collapse disorder, too?

“Inch by inch we need to think about our domination of nature and start shifting it in a deliberate way," says U of M professor Karen Oberhauser, "or we’ll just be counting things while they go extinct."

The great difference between pollinators in general and honeybees in particular seems to be that honeybees have various multi-billion-dollar industries documenting their particular fall off a cliff. But the catastrophic collapse of pollinators is happening all over the place. And it’s not merely a story of interest to bug-huggers.

Look out a window. Any window. “Seventy percent of the world’s flowering plants are dependent on pollinators,” explains Marla Spivak, MacArthur fellow and distinguished McKnight professor in entomology, who runs the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota and has the exasperated air of someone who has been trying to convey that the house is on fire to a bunch of people absorbed with their televisions for many, many years. “But people don’t care. Most people don’t like bees. Most people clump them in with all insects, all creepy-crawly insects, and all creepy-crawly insects need to be destroyed.”

And destroyed they are being. Which might put 75 to 80 percent of everything you see out the window in current mortal peril. Pollinators are what’s known as a keystone species. Lose the keystone, and the arch holding up the church comes crashing down. No pollinator, no plant; no plant, no bug; no bug, no bird, no fox, no wolf, no raptor. We’ll probably be fine, eating corn and drinking vitamin water, but everything else will be gone. Welcome to the Anthropocene.


What you can do

Seventeen steps you can take right now to help pollinators.


Honey, Honey

Doing the right thing has never tasted so sweet.